Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The College Problem You Haven't Heard Of

Everybody has heard that the price of education has been subject to higher inflation than medicine and every other commodity in our lives.  Certainly everybody has heard the jokes about the surge of college graduates unable to find work, (along the lines of "I have a Masters Degree in Lesbian Poetry, 1900 - 1919, but nobody will hire me!").  Everybody has heard of the coming student loan debt crisis.  Maybe some have even heard that student loans are a problem because student loans are the largest asset in the Federal Government's balance sheet.

But I have to admit even I hadn't heard of the surge in grade inflation to match the price inflation that colleges are charging.  If anyone less credible than Walter Williams had said this (to be fair, most of the human race is less credible than Walter), I might not be so fast to assume it's truth. Regrettably, this is an old argument, which burns me all the more for not being informed about it.  Williams, 2009, quotes a study by Professor Thomas C. Reeves, writing for the National Association of Scholars who documents something no less than academic fraud in his article "The Happy Classroom: Grade Inflation Works."
From 1991 to 2007, in public institutions, the average grade point average (GPA) rose, on a four-point scale, from 2.93 to 3.11. In private schools, the average GPA climbed from 3.09 to 3.30. Put within a historical perspective, in the 1930s, the average GPA was 2.35 (about a C-plus); whereby now it's a B-plus.
In 1960, about 15% of all letter grades given in colleges were As.  Today, that number is 43%.  At some schools, the As alone outnumber Ds and Fs combined by 4:1.  To some degree, we expect Ds and Fs to be a low number in colleges because they used to (historically) get you put on academic probation and then kicked out of school, but the increase in percentage of As can't be accounted for that way.  It seems that the Ivy League schools are particularly subject to this:
At Brown University, two-thirds of all letter grades given are A's. At Harvard, 50 percent of all grades were either A or A- (up from 22 percent in 1966); 91 percent of seniors graduated with honors. ...  Fifty percent of students at Columbia University are on the Dean's list. At Stanford University, where F grades used to be banned, only 6 percent of student grades were as low as a C. 
91% of Harvard students were Honors Graduates?  How much of an honor is it to be in the top 91% of your class?  That's making "Honors Graduate" into a participation trophy!  In my day, it took being in the top 5% of GPAs in the graduating class - which never seemed to work out to 90% of the graduates (or more than 5 or 10%).  The Dean's list at Columbia has 50% of the college's students?  How can that be a Dean's list?  That's the equivalent of having every student on campus flip a coin: head's you're on, tails you're off!  First rule of the Progressives: redefine the words. 

How do you explain this?  Walter Williams says it's pure and simple academic fraud.  He contributes:
Some college administrators will tell us that the higher grades merely reflect higher-quality students. Balderdash! SAT scores have been in decline for four decades and at least a third of entering freshmen must enroll in a remedial course either in math, writing or reading, which indicates academic fraud at the high school level. A recent survey of more than 30,000 first-year students revealed that nearly half spent more hours drinking than study. Another survey found that a third of students expected B's just for attending class, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the assigned reading.
Stu Burguiere of the Blaze and the Glen Beck program contributes an interesting perspective in this 5 minute video. College is an unusual industry in that you pay for the product, often over many years, but somewhere along the way, they tell you how good they were in teaching your children.  If they get As, Mom and Dad feel better about the purchase.  And the student is more likely to join the alumni association and donate money to the school.  How much is that needed?  Depends on the school.  A couple of years ago, I wrote:
Today's fun fact:  Harvard has an endowment worth $32 billion.  If they paid all 6700 undergraduates' tuition, fees and books, it would cost 1/1000 of that - $32 million.  That endowment grew over 21% last year ($6.72 billion).  Based simply on that, they could pay all undergrad fees forever, without endangering a single new building.  [Note: The $6.72 billion growth isn't in the original, I just added that - SiG]
While the Ivy League schools may not need this self-perpetuating system of artificially high grades, the smaller state and private schools surely will.  

In other words, for all the anti-capitalistic crap they indoctrinate students with, they sure do know how to manipulate incentives to get more capital. 
(Dilbert, of course)
The practical side of this is that it has been going on for quite a while, and companies trying to hire only the best new grads are continually refining their search methods.  For you and I, it may mean trying to hire older physicians - or at least being wary of younger, unproven ones.  The problem with that is that all the older ones are approaching retirement, too. 

Sidenote:  the cold that has knocked me flat for the last few days appears to be a bacterial bronchitis.  Saw my (older) allergist yesterday and got pumped full of steroids and antibiotics.  The fever is broken, but coughing still hurts.  At least the gurgling experience has eased up while trying to sleep.  And my hearty congratulations to the folks at Robitussin.  I never thought they could come up with a way to make that stuff taste more vile, but they have.  They changed it from a thin syrup you could knock back like a shot of vodka and follow with water to wash the taste away over to consistency more like molasses which is much harder to slug down. 


  1. You have my sympathy on the bronchitis. That's exactly what happened to me. My advice, from bitter experience: TAKE IT EASY. Give yourself time to recover. I'm a month out from the worst of it, and I'm still not 100% compared to where I was. This crud is nasty.

  2. I'm with ya, man. Got that bronchitis here, too. Knocking down the NyQuil at about a bottle a day and it's making me really appreciate the good old days when I could breathe AND lie down at the same time.

  3. I remember professors posting articles on grade inflation on their doors when I was in college -- in the early 1990s. Of course, this was in the electrical engineering department, and, well, the prof was making a point -- you may get a C in his class, but you EARNED it. Not like a B in the humanities courses.

  4. Peter and Murph - thanks. Pretty sure that's what I'm dealing with. At least last night I didn't get gurgling, bubbling sounds while breathing that woke me up every 20 minutes. The doc said he had seen three other cases Monday and Tuesday that started the same way.

    Rob - I had to take an elective class and grabbed a Materials class in the ME department. Around '86? I remember getting my first test back marked something like 70 and gulping. Then he said grades ran from 16 to 86 or something like that and I felt better. But I like that in a class: Ask no quarter. Give no quarter.

  5. My first Organic Chem midterm had a class average in the high 20s, with the only one student scoring above 80. My score of 50 something didn't seem so bad in comparison.

    But I went to a college that started out with no grades. Pass, reduced credit, or fail are your only options at Evergreen. The science students study their asses off, the humanities students not so much (as evidenced by their frequent protests of whatever liberal cause du jour they are participating in).

  6. And get better! Bacterial infections in the lungs are no joke.

  7. I used to get that cold that turns into death throws every winter. I'd be down 4 to 6 weeks. In 2008 I had a heart attack and have gotten a flue shot every year since. The plus side, I haven't had that cold since.
    No proof but I think the flu shot has something to do wth it. Just say'in.

  8. Ponderment of the morning: a mistake in surgery can kill one person; a mistake in aeronautical engineering can kill hundreds; a mistake in civil engineering, thousands; a mistake in social engineering, millions. Which of these trades has the least rigorous academic curriculum?

  9. I knew they were doing some grade inflation, but I figured they were doing more dumbing-down of the classes. My daughter is a sophomore right now. The papers they were supposed to peer review in English made my jaw drop. My daughter wrote better than the professor, who "didn't worry much about spelling or punctuation." It was a composition course, and the kids couldn't express a thought rationally. sigh

    What if you cut the Robitussin with the shot of vodka?

    When I told people I wouldn't vote for Obama and they called me a racist I said I'd vote for Walter Williams or Thomas Sowell in a heartbeat. I got a lot of blank stares.

  10. In the late 1980s, just for grins, I taught a semester (at night) of microeconomics at at local community college. Tests were multiple choice and a few short-essay questions. Grades looked like a bell curve (shocking, eh?). A few students complained about their grades, and actually had the nerve to say in so many words that the minimum grade they should receive, just for showing up every class, was a B. I said, "No." Then I got a call from the Dean, who said, "Yes." Not being a masochist, I didn't teach there again.

  11. If the federal government made auto loans subsidized, guaranteed, and undischargeable by bankruptcy, a Chevy Sonic would cost $150k and you would need to show proof of new car ownership to get all but the most menial of jobs.

  12. Well, rats, I missed the easy grades. I got my B.A. in English in 1980. It was a heck of a lot of work, and I got a number of papers back with red marks everywhere. I did, however, learn to think and to communicate for my trouble (and money).

    Oh, by the way, in case you are thinking I was a worthless drag on society because I didn't get a technical degree, I became a computer programmer after graduating.

  13. Chipmunk - Project much? No, of course we don't think people without tech degrees are "worthless drags on society". I just think they overpaid for a product they'll never get their moneys' worth from. OTOH, I would never tell someone not to spend their money on whatever they want, as long as they understand.

    Saw a kid on TV the other night saying she was getting a BA in poetry. She knew it wasn't going to pay, but she loved it and didn't care if her future was to be barista - or whatever. Somebody has to get poetry degrees, so it might as well be her. More power to her.